The fierce repression of protests is only stoking Kashmiris’ resentment
Aug 27th 2016 | SRINAGAR |
OWAIS GULAB has not left home for seven weeks. The college where he studies computing is closed, as are all but a few local shops. His phone, like others across the Kashmir Valley that use a pre-paid SIM card, cannot make calls. The hostel his family runs stands empty. It overlooks Dal Lake, whose hundreds of pleasure craft, normally packed with summer tourists, sit idle.
It is not just curfews, strikes and clashes between police and protesters that make Mr Gulab feel trapped. He fears leaving the valley, he says, because in other parts of India police routinely harass young Kashmiris. Musing over tea on the 46th afternoon of his confinement, what perturbs Mr Gulab is that he too now thinks in terms of “us” and “them”. “Someone my age with a 21st-century outlook should not be saying ‘those Indians’ and ‘their army’, but then you look at the headlines,” he says, pointing to a local newspaper that lists those killed in the latest round of violence.
There are now 68 names on that list. The number of injured approaches 10,000, some 460 of them wounded in the eyes by pellets from the shotguns the police use to quell riots. Most are young men, shot during the repeated confrontations with security forces that have broken out since the funeral, on July 9th, of Burhan Wani, an Islamist guerrilla from the south of the valley who had become a hero for young Kashmiris resentful of India’s seven-decade-long rule.
In the months before Indian troops killed Mr Wani, Kashmiris had warned of rising anger. The predominantly Muslim, Kashmiri-speaking people of the valley have long felt reluctant citizens of a huge, predominantly Hindu country that has repeatedly broken promises of special treatment. Neighbouring Pakistan, which claims natural title to Kashmir, has exploited this discomfort. Its dispatch of armed jihadists in the 1990s and 2000s, ostensibly to aid their co-religionists, prompted a massive and brutal, albeit successful, Indian counter-insurgency. That fighting left some 40,000 dead, by Indian estimates. It transformed the valley into an armed camp; perhaps half a million Indian troops still dwell among its 6m-7m residents.
The unrest, which briefly erupted again in 2008 and 2010, undermined the tourism-dependent economy of what had been one of India’s richest states, with massive floods in 2014 adding to the misery. Indian general elections that year brought the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party into power, leaving Kashmiris further estranged. Local elections that followed in Jammu and Kashmir, a state that joins the valley to adjacent regions with very different ethnic and religious make-up, then made things worse: the new state government was a slim, ungainly coalition between the BJP and the valley-based People’s Democratic Party. In the valley itself, many had heeded the calls of separatist leaders to boycott the polls.
In Delhi none of this seemed to matter. When trouble erupted in July the knee-jerk response was to blame Pakistan and to clamp down hard on the protests. India’s finance minister, Arun Jaitley, described stone-throwing as “a new form of attack by Pakistan on India’s unity and integrity”. The state’s chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, herself a Kashmiri, insisted that a mere 5% of Kashmir’s people backed the protests. In an address on India’s independence day, August 15th, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, avoided mention of Kashmir and instead lashed out at Pakistan, accusing it of human-rights violations in its own restive region of Balochistan.
In recent days, however, alarm has grown in Delhi. With senior army officers, India’s supreme court and opposition leaders all suggesting that security measures alone cannot solve the problem, Mr Modi broke his silence on August 22nd, expressing “deep concern and pain” at the loss of life. In a meeting with Kashmiri politicians he stressed the need for all parties to work together towards a “lasting solution to the problem within the framework of the constitution”. Mr Modi also sent his home minister, Rajnath Singh, to Srinagar for talks with local leaders.
Calming tempers, let alone finding a more lasting settlement, will not be easy. True, casualty rates have fallen in recent weeks and security forces have loosened strictures on movement and communications. Yet even as India’s government sends in politicians for talks, it has also sent in more troops. Some of them have taken over schools as barracks, despite a vow by the state’s education minister to reopen them for classes.
And while Mr Modi’s call for dialogue may be sincere, there remain the crucial questions of whom to talk to, and about what. Over the years, complains a human-rights worker in Srinagar, Indian governments have undermined the credibility of every local politician who has tried to work with them. The latest unrest has made things worse: the valley’s mainstream parties are torn between appeasing burning rage in the streets and upholding law and order, as Delhi sees it. As for parties that demand Kashmir’s separation from India, who far better represent the current mood, Mr Modi’s government has so far refused to engage with them: their leaders are under house arrest.
What is more, Kashmir’s decades of turmoil have left its society bitterly divided. A painstaking opinion poll published in 2010 by Chatham House, a British think-tank, revealed very low support in the valley for armed militancy, for joining Pakistan or for remaining a part of India. Instead, between 75% and 95% of respondents favoured Kashmiri independence. Gratifying such urges seems impossible, given the bounds of India’s constitution, the crushing rivalry between India and Pakistan and the disarray of Kashmir’s own politics. “The situation won’t get better,” concludes a weary plainclothes police officer in Srinagar. “The government doesn’t know what it is doing, and the separatists don’t know what they are doing.”